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July 21, 2011

"Who’s Better at Defending Criminals? Does Type of Defense Attorney Matter in Terms of Producing Favorable Case Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable empirical paper by Thomas Cohen from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is available now via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The role of defense counsel in criminal cases constitutes a topic of substantial importance for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, scholars, and policymakers.  What types of defense counsel (e.g., public defenders, privately retained attorneys, or assigned counsel) represent defendants in criminal cases and how do these defense counsel types perform in terms of securing favorable outcomes for their clients?

These and other issues are addressed in this article analyzing felony case processing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Specifically, this paper examines whether there are differences between defense counsel type and the adjudication and sentencing phases of criminal case processing.  Results show that private attorneys and public defenders secure similar adjudication and sentencing outcomes for their clients.  Defendants with assigned counsel, however, receive less favorable outcomes compared to their counterparts with public defenders. This article concludes by discussing the policy implications of these findings and possible avenues for future research.

July 21, 2011 at 08:41 AM | Permalink


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I would be more interested to know who is better at defending non-criminals. Although I suspect that would be an extremely difficult matter to study.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 21, 2011 9:41:54 AM

It is a good point, though, that the article title should read "criminal defendants." You get counsel upon indictment, not conviction, and unless the acquittal/dismissal rate in the studied data set is zero, at least some of these folks are ultimately not convicted. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not possible that they actually broke the law (and are thus, in some sense, criminals). But in our system, the standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and you should not be called a "criminal" unless and until that standard is met. (And at any rate, setting aside insufficiency of the evidence, etc., at least a few of these folks is likely to be completely, no-legal-spin "innocent"!)

Posted by: Anon | Jul 21, 2011 1:31:22 PM

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